Rudy Schwartz's Reviews

Doesn't it seem like a lot of movies feature the disembodied head of John Carradine? I can think of at least three: Frankenstein Island, Mark of the Astro Zombies, and this one. Maybe that's the complete list, but still, have you seen even one movie with the disembodied head of Richard Dreyfus or Wallace Shawn? Okay, maybe you wanted to see Richard Dreyfus's disembodied head if you sat through five minutes of Mr. Holland's Opus, but unfortunately it remained stubbornly contiguous with his spinal cord for the nonce. Maybe someday, somebody will have a life even more pointless than mine, and they'll research which movie stars have appeared as disembodied heads with the greatest frequency. Until then, I'm comfortable in asserting that John Carradine is the king of the disembodied head.

There are two general approaches to the cinematic disembodied head. First is a decapitated head, such as Virginia Leith in The Brain That Wouldn't Die or whoever that guy was in They Saved Hitler's Brain. In this case, the head is typically connected to tubes and wires, and rests on a card table or the dashboard of a Buick station wagon. Second is a more paranormal variation of head/torso separation, with the head suspended in the ether in the vicinity of a low budget reverb unit. Director David Hewitt chose this technique for Carradine's appearance in The Wizard of Mars, which was later retitled Alien Massacre, presumably to cash in on the popularity of Attorney General Edwin Meese. Expenses were obviously spared during the retitling, since Carradine's credit reads: "John Carradine as... Alien Massacre." This turns out to be misleading on multiple levels, since nothing as interesting as a massacre ever occurs, making it impossible for Carradine to portray one, even if actors could be cast as abstract nouns.

But to get to that detached Carradine head payoff, you have to be in the mood for a nap. This is one of those 60s sci-fi offerings that plods along aimlessly with eye straining, desaturated color, evocative of a day spent in bed chugging DayQuil Sinus Formula and listening to Seals & Crofts albums. Even when something weird happens, it has the emotional impact of a new L. L. Bean catalog showing up in the mailbox, due in part to the somnambulatory reactions of the principle characters, the four astronauts on "Mars Probe One." But a persistent indifference to logic in the narrative also helps bring things to a crawl.

Crappy sci-fi movies usually aim to fill in ninety minutes, give or take a few, so more often than not you get an opening sequence of character development, during which the principles are introduced, and fake scientific jargon is tossed around like death threats at a Sarah Palin rally. Inevitably, one of the astronauts is an attractive woman, biding her time with an unfulfilling career in space travel until the day she can settle down with a man and cook delicious meals with mushroom gravy and pineapple rings. Then there's the wise-cracking comic relief guy who's never funny and always irritating. Alien Massacre fits the mold, so feel free to go evacuate your bowels during absorbing exchanges such as: "Be sure to correlate your cameras, Dorothy, we don't want any overlap." and "Stand by, we are entering free orbital trajectory.". But do return to the sofa in time to see "Doc" stare through a telescope that has a fixed wind vane indicator in the lens. In space, "west" is always to your left.

Predictably, as the unfortunate viewer teeters on the precipice of a coma, something begins to go wrong for Probe One. Cheesy thunder bolts show up in the telescope lens, and more nonsensical jargon is bandied. Wide angle reception becomes "negative." The scanner is adjusted to "maximum magnification." For laymen, that means that if you want to scan, you won't be able to magnify whatever you're scanning any more than it already is, and this should worry you. Meters "convulse," and poking at them randomly in a panicky fashion doesn't remedy the situation. Smoke appears in the cockpit, then comes and goes with each cut, indicating a strange, fourth dimensional smoke which can only be viewed from specific angles, or a film editor recovering from an extended drinking binge. Charley, the comic relief, belts out with a hammy wryness: "We had to go to Mars. We couldn't go to the moon like everyone else!". Fasten your safety belts for space laffs.

Making our way through the plot checklist, the crew then crash lands on Mars. Survival becomes their chief concern, and to accomplish that, they will need to locate the main stage of their space craft. Since it has also crashed on Mars, it's not clear how that will help them, but it does provide a premise for them to leave the cockpit and find new ways to bore the living shit out of you.

First there's the question of oxygen. They only have about a four day supply, and there's no telling how much time they will need to reach the main stage. If only the oxygen supply could be stretched out. "Doc," being the scientific point man, hits on the idea of using the Mars atmosphere as an "oxygen booster" by cracking the intake valves on their helmets. This seems like a swell idea to everyone, even though the atmosphere on Mars is over 90% carbon dioxide.

When you plan a space mission, you have to worry about your payload. Space flight involves precision, and the weight of the space craft and its contents has to be factored into the fuel budget, with a sufficient margin of error to maintain high confidence in the success of the mission. This is why on any flight to Mars, rubber rafts and firearms are always carried. These prove essential for the Alien Massacre crew, when they inflate their raft with thin Martian air, jump into one of Mars' ubiquitous creeks, and aimlessly set sail in search of the main stage, all the while sucking in oxygen rich Martian air through the cracks in their intake valves. If only Curt Gowdy and Phil Harris could have come along for the ride.

But things soon turn sour when the raft is attacked by rubber spinal cords with tiny leaf hands. These rubber spinal cords, common in Martian rivers and trout creeks, drape themselves over the edge of fishing rafts, then lay there like, well, rubber spinal cords, motionless unless they are wiggled from off camera. After a tense exchange of gunfire and jiggling rubber, an oar is used to push the raft twenty yards up the creek, salvaging Probe One's important work. The horrifying encounter won't soon be forgotten, but God bless the National Rifle Association for their lobbying efforts with NASA.

The river leads to caves, and since they're looking for a crashed rocket stage, it makes perfect sense to steer the raft into the caves. Besides, the atmosphere in the cave is completely different, noticeably better than the immediate vicinity of a cow's ass or Los Angeles, so it's okay for them to open up their space helmets, making it easier to say stupid shit to each other. Like when the cave leads to a volcanic cavern, and they reason that they should risk death by walking along the edge of the fiery pit if that helps kill a full hour before the encounter with John Carradine's disembodied head. Later, when they reach the other side of the cavern, they become concerned it's about to blow up, even though nobody mentioned that possibility when they inexplicably decided to walk around a pit of molten lava. This provides an excuse to set off about twenty-five dollars worth of cheap fireworks at the mouth of the cave, risking the entire special effects budget.

Having consumed a couple days of oxygen fighting off spinal cords and walking next to lava pits, they saunter around the desert for awhile, complaining and wisecracking. Just as the oxygen is about to expire, they see a glowing dome on the horizon, and a golden brick road in the sand. Oh, and have I mentioned the woman astronaut's name is Dorothy. Capiche? Wizard of Mars? Sad that this couldn't have been "The Mars Chainsaw Massacre" instead. "Doc" concludes that this golden path, buried beneath about a quarter inch of sand, "must have been buried for millions of years, similar to Troy on our own planet." Doc's dating techniques would probably ruffle some feathers at The Institute for Creation Research. The purists would argue that the universe is six thousand years old, but the free thinkers might counter that dinosaurs roamed the earth millions of years ago, frequently mixing it up with the Trojans, then aligning themselves with the Greeks when politically expedient. Neil Cavuto could moderate.

The crew follows the path, enters the domed thingy, and discovers it has the same atmosphere as Earth. Not only that, there are aliens trapped in cylinders along the walls. One of them explains telepathically that John Carradine's head wants to rendez-vous. Conversation is difficult at first, but after a couple of iterations, John's head figures out English, and explains in the most tiresome and pedantic way imaginable that Earthlings are too goddamned stupid to ever understand that time has been stopped, and can't be started again, because, if he didn't mention it before, people from Earth are a bunch of fucking dumbasses. After ten minutes of condescension, he tells them that they need to insert a sphere into a universal time symbol, and that he needs to go because he's tired of talking to idiots. Then they notice a sphere sitting on a pedestal that looks like a snow globe or one of those four dollar Home Depot light covers. There's also a big room with a big ass pendulum thing, which it turns out has a hole about the same size as the snow globe. Their self esteem soars as they connect the dots.

Upon inserting the sphere, the giant pendulum begins moving, time recommences, and John Carradine and his race of super intelligent life forms resume their inexorable march toward their destinies. This causes the guy running the camera to jump around, and pea gravel to fall from the walls, signaling the crew to flee for the head of the golden path. There they collapse, vanish into thin air, then wake up on board their ship, where a transmission from earth informs them that only two minutes have gone by since I made the mistake of hitting the "Play' button. John Carradine pulls it all together with an observation that will resonate with anyone who has ever owned a Ford Maverick:

"Upon unraveling the last mystery of the universe, this we learned. As without birth, there can be no life. So without death, life itself is meaningless. For without death, life cannot begin ... again."

I'm not sure why I didn't hate this movie. It might be because I enjoy meandering, sleep-inducing 1960s science fiction movies that look like one of the color guns on my television isn't working. It might be the mildly entertaining soundtrack by Frank Coe, a Ray Dennis Steckler collaborator who is also credited with "Electroneffects." The whole gestalt is an uninteresting, monotonous blob, but sometimes I like that. And I like movies with disembodied heads. You'll probably want to avoid it though.

No comments

Add Comment

Enclosing asterisks marks text as bold (*word*), underscore are made via _word_.
Standard emoticons like :-) and ;-) are converted to images.

To prevent automated Bots from commentspamming, please enter the string you see in the image below in the appropriate input box. Your comment will only be submitted if the strings match. Please ensure that your browser supports and accepts cookies, or your comment cannot be verified correctly.